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Q.6.a and Other places Part 11

were billeted in a cellar, and this was improved by mattresses, tables, and chairs brought in from the huts outside. Here in spite of intermittent shelling we got a much needed rest. But Fonquevillers was no place for a permanent rest cure. The village was shelled on and off all day, and several of our men were hit. I assisted the Adjutant, Capt. S.P. Brook-Booth, M.C., to collect a supply of early vegetables from the little gardens; and the officers in our reserve camp at Souastre thoughtfully sent up a couple of cooked chickens and a few other luxuries, so that evening we had something in the nature of a feast. Next morning, March 31, Lieut. Johnston, temporarily in command of A Company got a shell splinter through his hand and had to be sent back. I was then put in command of A Company and left Battalion H.Q., so that for some days the observers were not under my charge. About this time L.-C. Flynn, one of the observers, was seriously wounded by a shell, and we learnt later on that he died of his wounds. It was an unlucky affair, for he was one of the best observers. But I had no further casualties for a long time. I found A Company quartered in a line of old trenches between Gommecourt Wood and Fonquevillers. I believe they were part of the old British front line before the Somme battle started. Accommodation was very limited, and I found the other officers of A Company,[19] four in number, with their batmen and cook all crowded together in a small shelter. It was as may be imagined uncomfortably hot at times, especially during the night, part of which I spent in the trench outside. We only got a few shells from the enemy here, his attention was directed more to the village behind us and Gommecourt Wood in front.

On April 1 we got orders to proceed after dark to the front line trenches at Bucquoy--A Company was to hold those on the left, with B Company to their right. We were also given a route, but in the darkness it was difficult to find and it led to a curious incident on our journey forward. We assembled the company on the road outside Gommecourt and made towards the village as fast as the crowded state of the road would allow. Happily we were not shelled here, but there were signs on the road that others had not been so fortunate. When we reached Gommecourt, a mere ruin now of broken trees and buildings, we were clear of the press of transport and troops. We turned south-east hoping to strike a tramway running towards Biez Wood. Nothing, however, could we see of the tramway, and we could only push on, hoping to find it. After going on awhile we certainly seemed to be reaching a rather queer place, for we saw our men setting out wire, and a rather scared little man appeared out of the darkness and told us that 'Jerry was over there,' pointing down the road. We did not stop for this, but when a German Verey light shot up almost under our noses, we decided that we had indeed come too far and that it was time to turn back. This we did without waste of time and retraced our steps to Gommecourt. I was expecting any minute to hear a machine-gun open on us down the road. But if 'Jerry' was there in any force he had decided to keep quiet, and we got safely back to Gommecourt. After this experience we took a way that we knew, although it was not the one laid down for us. And after a long march in the dark we struck the Essarts-Bucquoy Road, and found our guides awaiting us on the road near Bucquoy. Whilst this relief was going on our field batteries kept up a hot fire on the enemy's front, but he made no reply.

The guides took us by a winding route through the north end of Bucquoy to the trenches, which consisted of an old German drain, very straight and about six feet deep. It ran parallel to the east side of the village and about 200 yards from its outskirts. The Company H.Q. lay a little way behind the front line and consisted of a short narrow slit in the ground, roofed over with tin--one of the smallest shelters I have ever been in. It was possible to sit down, but not to lie down, and the floor was inches deep in cold mud. Here I found two very disconsolate officers awaiting relief. They seemed to be nearly perished with the cold and wet, and quite worn out by their cheerless sojourn in the trenches. The trench lay on the slope of a slight hill, the crest being about 200 yards away. The enemy were not close, their position was out of sight and unknown. But to the left Logeast Wood was clearly visible, and the enemy were known to be there. Our trench ended abruptly on the left, and the nearest British troops on this flank were some way off and more to the east, so that there was a considerable gap in the line here. On the right of course we were in touch with B Company, who were commanded by Lieut. Affleck, M.C., a veteran of the Houthulst Forest battle, and one of our most redoubtable warriors in the 7th N.F. I knew that I need not worry about my right flank! No smoke from fires could be allowed in the trenches, and cooking had to be done over small fires of fine wood splinters. When morning came it was possible to have a better look round. All the reserve ammunition, about 5000 rounds, had been pulled out of the boxes, and the bandoliers were mostly buried in the mud. It was a great business clearing the trench of mud and salvaging and cleaning the ammunition. The enemy did not know where we were. All morning three of his aeroplanes, flying low, hovered about our little trench, occasionally firing bursts at us with their machine-guns. We only replied with an occasional shot, and of course they could not tell where that came from. At any rate the German guns let the trench alone and poured a stream of heavy shells all day and night into the village behind us and into the hedges at the east end. The fact appeared quite clearly later on that the enemy could not locate our front line. A messenger dog, belonging to the enemy, was captured at this time near Bucquoy, bearing a message in German as follows: 'The affair of Bucquoy is off for the present, as we don't know where Tommy is.' It was well indeed for our two companies that the drain trench was not suspected by the enemy. There were no traverses in it from one end to the other, and a very few well-aimed shells would have blown us to pieces.

That night (April 2) the British forces made a counter-attack at Ayette and drove the enemy as far back as the old hangars at Moyenneville. Seen from the trenches at Bucquoy it was a fine sight.

The enemy put up all kinds of coloured lights, including silhouette lights and 'flaming onions' both orange and mauve.

Meanwhile we of the 7th N.F. undertook a small venture against certain parties of the enemy that had been seen and sniped at from B Company's trench. These parties were busy digging trenches about 400 yards away to our front. Soon after dark 2nd-Lieuts. J. Dodds and J.H. Edmunds took out a raiding party of over twenty men in order to secure a prisoner if possible. As it turned out this was done quickly enough and without firing a shot.

For on the party creeping forward to the wire belt at the top of the hill, a German N.C.O. walked towards them, was surprised by 2nd-Lieut.

Dodds, and surrendered without a struggle. He was already slightly wounded, and had come forward perhaps to have a look at the wire. He was brought back at once to the trench, and it fell to me to examine the man and to remove all papers from him except his pay-book and identity disc. I went out and examined him in a mixture of such broken French and German as I could summon at so short a notice. I also went through his papers with the aid of lighted matches. After this he was sent down under escort to Battalion H.Q., and thence to D.H.Q.

It proved to be a useful capture, for it showed that a fresh German division had arrived opposite our front. Later on 2nd-Lieut. Dodds was awarded the Military Cross for the capture. Early next morning (April 3) the Division sent orders that I should return with the Divisional observers to the rear. So I left the trench in charge of 2nd-Lieut. N.

Holt and went back with my servant through Bucquoy, taking care to avoid certain large shells which were falling every now and then about the village. Calling at Battalion H.Q. I found that the observers were now in some trenches about half a mile farther back in the direction of Essarts. I soon found them, however, and whilst waiting for them to get ready I was hospitably supplied with some whisky and soda by the officers of one of the Lancashire Regiments.

At last we set off in small parties towards Gommecourt, our destination being Souastre, a long march for tired men. Whilst passing Biez Wood we came in for some rather unpleasant attention from the enemy's artillery, whose observers could see movement at this spot all too well. However we got away at last without mishap and collected again short of Gommecourt, where we halted for a meal of bully and biscuit. Eventually after passing through Gommecourt and Fonquevillers we struggled on to Souastre, very footsore and completely worn out.

From March 23 onwards it had been one long strain, heavy marching most days and, with few exceptions, sleepless nights. For myself I was a very tramp, boots worn to pieces, clothes hanging with mud, and thick with mud up to the eyes. Undoubtedly it was the most trying experience physically that I have ever been through. At Souastre I called at rear Battalion H.Q., where Capt. Herriott of B Company kindly lent me his rubber boots and some clean socks, a great luxury and comfort. Then I went on to the Officers' Hut at the battalion reserve camp, and was able to lie down and sleep till well on into the next day. Souastre was not a bad place to rest, for it was shelled only very occasionally with long-range guns.

The following afternoon (April 4) Capt. Kirsopp came to see me and he brought a motor-car. He wished to reconnoitre a 'battle O.P.,' i.e. a place in the back area from which to observe enemy shelling of the forward areas or enemy attacks on our line. I was told that things were expected to happen next day; and I was instructed to find a post where I could see what was going on, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Chateau de la Haie.

In the morning (April 5) I went with Corp. Walker and L.-C. Cowen to the Bayencourt Ridge, south of the chateau, and we got into a small trench. Things certainly were happening, for the enemy was scattering his heavy high-velocity shells broadcast over the country. He seemed to direct them chiefly against our battery positions and the roads and trenches in rear of Fonquevillers and Sailly-au-Bois. The number of these shells was unusually large; but later on towards 10 A.M. things began to quieten down in the back area. What had happened was this.

The 37th Division with the assistance of tanks made a counter-attack on Rossignol Wood. The Germans had prepared to make another of their grand attacks that same morning. But it was anticipated by about half an hour. The result was a fierce struggle in which we gained a little ground and a certain number of prisoners. The German attack therefore came to nothing, and this proved to be his last attempt of a serious kind on our part of the front. Anxiety was not however, at an end for many days to come.

During the next few days the observers held a battle O.P. near the orchard in Fonquevillers. It was a long walk from Souastre and back, but fairly quiet, for it could be reached by going across country and avoiding the sorely harassed roads.

On April 8 the 42nd Division was taken back for a short rest to the area round Authie.

FOOTNOTES:

[17] Ptes. Fail and Ewart.

[18] Major V. Merivale, M.C. (C Company), Capt. Herriott (B Company), and Lieut. P. Cole (A Company) were, I think, in charge of the three companies.

[19] Second-Lieuts. N. Holt, C.R. King, J. Dodds, and J. Lassey.

XXXII

TRENCH WARFARE--HeBUTERNE

During Divisional rest the observers were attached for rations and accommodation to the H.Q. Company of the 7th N.F. We marched back, therefore, with the battalion through Couin and St. Leger to Authie.

We found nice billets awaiting us in this pleasant French village, which was too far from the enemy to be afflicted with shell fire. It was full of French civilians, and the small shops had various little luxuries to which we had been unused for some time. From Authie Woods to Bayencourt ran the 'Red Line' trenches, a sort of 'last-but-one'

reserve line, which had been hastily dug by Chinese labourers and were still only about four feet deep. We did not stay long at Authie, for the billets were wanted to accommodate French troops who were being hurried northwards to the battle now raging about Kemmel.

On April 12 the 7th N.F. moved forward to the village of Coigneux and H.Q. were established in a French estaminet. There were civilians here too, but the village was liable to be shelled and half of them had gone away. A distressing attack of tooth-ache took me twice to the C.C.S. near Doullens. I found that town more deserted than it used to be, for the Germans had shelled and bombed it vigorously since their offensive started.

On April 16, after a week's rest, the 42nd Division took over the trenches running from Gommecourt to Hebuterne. The same day the observers moved to some old trenches north of the Chateau de la Haie.

It was a cold place in wet weather, and we were occasionally shelled.

But after a few days through the kindness of Col. Guy, the G.S.O. I, billets were found for us in a cottage at Bayencourt, which lies about half a mile south of the chateau. It was indeed a pleasant oasis in a badly shelled area. Why the enemy left the place alone I cannot say.

But when we got there there were still plenty of old French folk, who lived quietly on amid the surrounding strife, and continued to keep their cows in the fields and to cultivate the land. The church had not been shelled, for a wonder, and the clock was still going and striking the hours.

The observers sent up two parties of two men every day to an O.P.

north-east of Hebuterne. The other men manned a battle O.P. on the Bayencourt Ridge during the morning.

April 23, St. George's Day, provided a little excitement for three of us. We were told to try to find an O.P. near the Quarries at Hebuterne, not generally a very healthy spot. As we were shelled incessantly all the time we were near the place, the idea of establishing a post here was abandoned. And eventually another post was fixed on, on the north-east side of Hebuterne. Some useful work was done here by the observers; they obtained some valuable information about enemy movement and got the artillery to shell a relief that was taking place. At the close of our tour in the line, which occurred about May 4, the IV Corps directed all Infantry observers to take sound bearings of enemy guns and to wire them at once to the Counter-Battery Office. This was gratifying, as we had made a special effort to report these sound bearings, a system of which I had learnt something in the Salient.

From May 4 to June 9 the Division remained in the rest area about Couin. The observers left Bayencourt and joined the 7th N.F. at Coigneux, where we lived in tents on the high chalky ground south of Rossignol Farm. I messed with the officers of A Company, and shared a tent with Lieut W.H. Fisher and 2nd-Lieut Dodd. Owing to the bombing and shelling in the neighbourhood, we were ordered to fortify our tents. So we had a small trench dug for each inside the tent and in these we put our valises. It was rather like a shallow grave, but it gave you a feeling of security when bits were flying about. During this month the observers had a little mild training each day; but the G.O.C. sent word to me to rest the men as much as possible. I amused myself at the battle O.P. on Bayencourt Ridge and sent in daily reports of sound bearings to the IV Corps Counter-Battery Office.

On the whole the enemy let our camp fairly well alone. We had one large bomb dropped in the camp, but it failed to do any material damage. Latterly the 4-inch naval guns took to sending a few shells over daily, but we had only a few men wounded from splinters. Other units near us came off worse. During the rest at Coigneux we had a visit from some American troops. I think they had come to gain a little mild experience of our methods. Anyway a small party of their observers came to see how we held our posts. And they were taken to the battle O.P. and to the forward O.P. at Hebuterne.

XXXIII

TRENCH WARFARE--THE COLINCAMPS RIDGE

No offensive operations on a large scale were undertaken against the enemy on the IV Corps front, Bucquoy to Auchonvillers, before the middle of August 1918. The period from May onwards was spent in strengthening the defences and in wearing down the enemy's strength and morale. The latter object was achieved by continual harassing fire from our guns, strong counter-battery, periodical gas projections, bombing from our aeroplanes, and raids. It was still necessary to work hard on our defences, for the German offensive was by no means over, and it was impossible to say at what moment the enemy might renew his attacks on this part of the front.

The part played by the Divisional observers during this period of trench warfare was more important and useful than at any other period of their employment. This was partly due to the excellent position for ground observation on the ridge between Colincamps and Auchonvillers, and partly to the improvement in means of communication with D.H.Q.

and the artillery. Great credit is due to Capt. Kirsopp for his continual efforts to make the information obtained more rapid and effective. And also to the men who got the information by patiently sticking to their job for ten long weeks, sometimes under trying and discouraging conditions.

The observers were quartered in a number of small shelters on the high ground between Coigneux and Bus, well back from the shelled and bombed area. The shelters were in the side of a green mound, near the Bus waterworks; and this place was used as a battle O.P. and became known as 'Eve' O.P. From here there was a splendid view of the country just behind the British front line. So that the observers stationed here could say at once where heavy shelling was going on, either by day or by night. A telephone connected 'Eve' O.P. with D.H.Q. and also with the forward O.P. The latter post was about four miles away in a small trench on the ridge north of Auchonvillers near some apple trees, which perhaps suggested the name 'Adam' O.P. In many ways it was an admirable place for an O.P. If care was taken it could be approached without being seen by the enemy. It was screened by a thick hedge and also by a deep belt of wire about thirty yards in front of the hedge.

The O.P. itself was in the hedge bank, and was roofed over with several small 'elephant' shelters, with earth on top of them. There was plenty of room for at least three men to work inside. And observation was obtained through a small opening in the hedge bank.

The opening was always further screened by sandbags, so that only the end of the telescope was exposed to the enemy and that was always in a deep shadow. A few yards away outside the O.P. in the trench was a small mined dugout. This was not very deep, about six feet down at the most; but it was under the roots of the hedge, a good protection against the shells of field guns. In this dugout the observers who were not on duty were able to sleep, and the men in the O.P. could take refuge in case of heavy shelling. The O.P. was connected by telephone with D.H.Q. and also with Eve O.P. Not far away in the same trench there were other O.P.'s, one held by the Lovat Scouts (Corps Observers) and another, 'Rose' O.P., by the heavy artillery.

[Illustration: Panorama from Adam O.P., July 1918.]

Our method of working the two O.P.'s was as follows. The N.C.O., L.-C.

Cowen, remained at Eve O.P. and assisted me with various duties there, and with the duty of inspecting the working of Adam O.P. The other observers, eight in number, were divided into two groups of four, one in charge of Pte. J. King and the other in in charge of Pte. W.O.S.

Fail. Three observers from No. 1 group went forward to Adam O.P. and stayed there for forty-eight hours, drawing their rations each day from the nearest Battalion H.Q. After this they were relieved by three observers from No 2 group and so on. By this arrangement I was able to rest the men and to carry on observation continuously for ten weeks without unduly tiring the men. Out of the four observers in a group, only three were at Adam O.P. at the same time, the fourth man remaining back at Eve O.P. for a rest. Thus during sixteen days each observer had three tours of duty at Adam O.P. lasting two days each, two rests of two days, and then a rest of six days. This kept all the men fresh, an important matter if you wish for good observation.

At Adam O.P. two of the three observers were always at the telescope during daylight, and one was resting in the dugout. And at night one had to remain awake, to be able to report heavy shelling to D.H.Q. and to act as gas sentry for the others. It was of course all done in a system of reliefs amongst themselves. During these summer months observation was possible in the most favourable circumstances from 3.45 A.M. to 9.10 P.M., so the night was comparatively short. Adam O.P. was visited on alternate days by L.-C. Cowen and myself. I went invariably in the early morning, so as to arrive at the O.P. about an hour or so after observation had become possible. The enemy exposed himself more freely during the two or three hours after dawn than at any other time during the day. By going up early I was able to see that the men were at their post at this important time, and to get their early information, often of importance, as soon as possible. It meant starting in the dark, and often a cold wet journey across country, but the good fellows at the O.P. always had a cup of tea for me--a little act of kindness which illustrates our friendly relations.

The most interesting things we could see from Adam O.P. were the German front line trenches south and south-west of Serre, two spots known as 'L. 33. a. O. 9.' and 'Q. 6. a. 9. 8.' where anyone approaching these forward trenches had to cross a ridge and so come under our observation, the German transport roads about Achiet-le-Petit, Irles, and Loupart Wood. The German front line was within 2000 yards, Q. 6. a. within 4000 yards, L. 33. a. rather over 6000 yards, and the roads well over 10,000 yards away. Near to Pys was a German C.C.S., which was narrowly watched, for any increase in its size would have probably meant preparation for an attack. And behind Irles was a derelict British tank which the Germans used as an O.P., for it was invariably visited by a number of men just before one of their reliefs took place, and at no other time.

Every day two reports were sent in to D.H.Q. of all movement seen during the preceding twelve hours. And every movement seen was entered into a Log Book. This was my special department; and after a time it was possible to compile a further book called the Summary Book, with coloured charts of daily movement. In a short time we discovered the average or normal movement for the twenty-four hours. And after that it was quite simple to warn the Division at once whenever any movement of an abnormal character was taking place.

Owing to weak eyesight I could not do much telescope work myself--my part of the field work was map reading, in which I had considerable assistance from aeroplane photographs at D.H.Q. I asked the observers to make telescopic sketches, on every compass bearing, of what they could see. And then from these sketches and with my own maps and protractor I was able to tell them what they were looking at on the map, and to prepare a panoramic sketch for their use at Adam O.P. Pte.

King sent in an admirable series of sketches which were most useful in this work of discovery. Later on the more powerful telescope was also taken up to Adam O.P., and with this Pte. Fail did some most useful work. With his exceptional eyesight and a gift for sketching he made a series of excellent artillery target sketches. These I copied out and coloured and sent to D.H.Q.; and they were sent on to the IV Corps Heavy Artillery. These targets were fired at with great success. For example one of the first sent in was of a cook-house and wireless station at L. 33. a. On July 11 the heavy artillery carried out a successful shoot on the place, using Adam O.P. as their observing station. In order to place on record some of the work done by my observers at Adam O.P. I will give some of the results of their systematic observation.

A Divisional relief on July 3 and 4 was spotted by Capt. Kirsopp on information given by the observers of exceptional movement in the forward area. Another Divisional relief was detected by largely increased movement on July 25. And a battalion relief on August 6, with disastrous results for the enemy. At least fifty copies of different telescopic sketches were sent in to the Division, including a series of eight showing new workings by the Germans in their front line system. Reports of nearly seventy gun-flashes were sent in as well as many sound bearing reports. The following numbers of German infantry and transport vehicles were reported from Adam O.P.

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